Many older Americans live with their furry companions, considering them as a family member as they can serve as companions and help improve their health and well-being, said the University of Michigan: National Poll On Healthy Aging, a nationally representative survey.
According to Escalon Times, a local news and information website, taking care of pets and being surrounded by them trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that may lower stress hormones and increase the production of serotonin or the feel-good hormone. For divorced or widowed seniors, pets can provide them with emotional support and companionship, making them feel happier and more secure.
Americans and Aging: The Benefits and Challenges of Pet Ownership (2019)
In October 2018, the National Poll On Healthy Aging conducted a survey involving adults aged 50 to 80 about their pets, reasons for having or not having pets, and the benefits and challenges of owning one. 55% of respondents said they owned a pet and among owners, 68% had dogs, 48% had cats, and 16% had a small pet like a bird, fish, or hamster. Meanwhile, 55% said they owned multiple pets.
Although 20% of adults cared for their pet by themselves, 80% said that other people help take care of their pets. Interestingly, 53% said their pets sleep in their bed. According to the respondents, pets helped them enjoy life (88%), make them feel loved (86%), reduce stress (79%), provide a sense of purpose (73%), and help them stick to a routine (62%).
65% said their pets connect them with other people, help them become physically active (64% of overall respondents and 78% of dog owners, help them cope with physical and emotional symptoms (60%), and take their mind off pain (34%). Among respondents who lived alone and/or those who said they had fair or poor physical health, 72% said pets help them cope with emotional or physical symptoms. 43% of respondents who live alone and 46% of those in fair or poor physical health said their pets help take their mind off pain.
52% said their main reason for getting a pet is companionship while 21% said the pet needed a home. However, the respondents did not choose to own pets because they don’t want to be tied down (42%), cost (23%) and not having time to care for a pet (20%). 16% said they or another household member has allergies and 19% said they are not interested in pets.
54% of respondents said pets make it difficult for them to travel or enjoy activities away from home while 18% said pet care “puts a strain on their budget.” 15% of respondents reported that their pet’s health takes priority over their own whereas 6% said their pets caused them to fall or injure themselves. Pet owners who live alone (22%) or those who have fair or poor physical health (26%) were more likely to report that their pet’s needs take over their own needs.
What Are the Risks of Taking Care of A Pet?
While there are a plethora of reasons to get a pet, it is important for seniors to have funds to take care of a pet— be it adopted or not, said Aging In Place, a website that provides caregivers with the knowledge and support they need to plan and prepare to keep more seniors in their homes. For example, puppies have known to cost $800 in their first year due to food, toys, healthcare, and more.
If a senior is unable to spend $500 a year on a dog or a cat, then a bird or a fish might be a better pet. Sometimes, elderly people might give up their pet for different reasons such as not being able to physically take care of them or their nursing home or assisted facility does not allow seniors to take care of pets anymore. Seniors may also choose to relinquish their pet because they want to spend more time traveling or feel relieved to not be burdened with additional responsibilities.
Falls can also occur when seniors take care of their pet. Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly.”
Some studies noted that seniors tend to be more depressed the more they are attached with their pet. However, this assertion could be a correlation, not causation. Still, this is something to consider for seniors who are susceptible to mental illness or depression. Some doctors studying the elderly believed that an animal’s death can worsen an individual’s depression. Aging can be an isolating experience and a death of a pet may exacerbate this stress.
Deciding to Keep A Pet
Seniors should not think of themselves as better than anyone. Hence, it is recommended to be honest whether adopting or taking care of a pet is a good idea. A pros and cons list can help seniors organize their thoughts. While many doctors said that the benefits outweigh the risks of pet ownership, those benefits might not be good for some seniors. Finding a co-caretaker is a good idea. Otherwise, seniors may ask themselves: “Is my mobility good enough to not fall when picking up my dog when it is running circuitously?” “Is it hard for me to bend down to ground level to clean up my pet.”
A family member or a volunteer agency can help seniors with the physical aspects of pet care, relieving stress and reducing their likelihood of having accidents. However, if they don’t have a loved one or a friend to do this, seniors might have to relinquish their pet. The disadvantages of pet ownership is a difficult subject to tackle because no one wants to give up their pet. Seniors should not compromise their health just because they are too proud to reach out for help. A backup plan or a helper may prevent injuries that lead to emotional stress, surgery, and rehabilitation.
Pets provide companionship, love, and security to seniors. However, depending on the circumstances, not everyone will be able to take care of one. For example, a person might be unable to bend down to pick up their dog or their nursing home does not allow pets. When deciding to keep a pet, seniors can create a pros and cons list to assess if caring for one is a good idea.